Successful Thinking

Posted on 17th July 2005 by Ryan Somma in Ionian Enchantment

Human beings have one of the largest brain to body mass ratios of any animal on the planet. While it could be argued that this is due in part to our sophisticated hand control, just as an octopus requires a large brain to control its eight appendages, our obvious accomplishments as the most successful higher-order species on the planet provides further evidence of our cognitive superiority. Without our higher brain functions allowing us to construct complex social structures, technological extensions of ourselves, and anticipate future events, we would be at a disadvantage in competition with the other more physically adept mammals, even the primates.

When we consider the cognitive advantages human beings have over the rest of the animal kingdom, we must keep in mind that we are only talking about matters of degree. Theory of mind was a concept we though unique to our species, but we now know that even some species of bird grasp this idea and use it to their advantage. It was once believed other animals lacked the capacity for abstract thought, we now have indisputable proof that many primates possess such faculties. Even emotions, which psychologists have argued are a strictly human characteristic, are definitely shared by our fellow mammals.

The uniqueness of human cognition concerns the extent to which we exhibit all of these faculties. Human beings take abstraction, theory of mind, and foresight to heights unrealized elsewhere in Earth’s animal kingdom. Our sophisticated levels of communication between members of the human race have allowed for adaptive cooperation strategies to far outstrip any anthill or beehive. Our tooluse leaves the primates and birds in the metaphorical dust. We abstract ourselves into questioning everything around us while the rest of the animal kingdom simply is.

The status of being the most-successful species of mammal on the planet does not exempt us from continuing to evolve. We still compete for survival, but this now occurs almost exclusively within our own species. We compete against one another in free markets, wars, social conflicts, and disputations. We measure individual success against economic, academic, and social status means. The memes of the most successful humans continue to live after them, carried in the minds of future generations.

Over the next few articles, I will explore some of the specific cognitive adaptations that have made the human race so successful. These are adaptations that are even more relevant today, making them virtues for emulation. These are mental characteristics that make for successful human beings.

Plasticity of Mind

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” – John Lennon

Dr. J. Bronowski makes an interesting observation of the statues of Easter Island, Egyptian Pharohs, Greek and Roman Rulers, Musolinni, Hitler, and others. These great, immovable figures, whose empires and fantastic civilizations must have seemed immortal at the time of their reigns, are all dead and their works swept away by time. It’s like that Percy Shelley poem, Ozymandias, where a barren wasteland with two “trunkless legs of stone” stand on a pedestal where these words appear:

“My name is Ozymandius. king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

The common thread running through all failed civilizations is rigidity. A culture “set in stone” fails to adapt to changes in the environment. The people of Easter Island failed to change their behaviors even as they chopped down their last tree. The Vikings failed to adopt the more successful behaviors of the other cultures that thrived in the northern climates. These examples of failed cultures are the collective failures of individuals who were too rigid in their ways of thinking.

We are brought from the womb in a fetal-state. We are nearly blank slates, unlike other animals (mostly non-mammals) born into the world fully functional, Homo Sapiens must learn through a long childhood how to succeed in our environment. Our experiences wire our minds with cause and effect relationships that we carry throughout our lifetimes, but our minds are never hardwired. We always have the potential to reorganize them.

The length of this childhood has grown significantly in the last 200 years. Marriage at the beginning of puberty was not uncommon in many American cultures merely 50 years ago. Many of today’s offspring will continue to rely on their parents for support through their college years and beyond. As the complexity of our world increases, so too does the length of time needed to adapt to its demands.

Yet, this is the amazing aspect of human cognitive prowess that we do adapt to the increased demands. We rise to an ever-rising bar of mental challenges to succeed in our society. We are cognitively malleable and, as a result, fantastically adaptable.

ECG scans have shown our brain patterns change throughout our life in response to not only our body chemistry, but our experiences as well. Different regions of the brain are activated in response to new stimuli, such as music, math, or reading, and stay activated. Similarly, regions of the brain can go inactive through lack of use.

Our minds are dynamic entities and successful thinking demands that we preserve their malleability.

The Postponement of Gratification

It is the slopping forehead of our ancestors and related species that most distinguishes our various fossilized skulls. Homo Sapiens are egg-heads, our skulls climb straight up from our brows. Within this extra bit of space resides one of the most important components of our neurology: the brain’s frontal lobe.

How exquisitely symbolic that the functions of this portion of our gray matter resemble its placement. The frontal lobe is preoccupied with forward thinking, and this gives Homo Sapiens a knack for strategization and planning other species lack. Our ancestors anticipated the changing seasons, and we modern decedents anticipate countless aspects of our everyday lives.

One significant dimension to taking advantage of forward-thinking is the ability of an individual to put off present rewards for greater rewards in the future. Consider the hungry farmer who eats his corn seeds compared to the farmer who remains hungry in order to plant those seeds, anticipating their multiplication with the next harvest. Psychologists refer to this mastery over immediate desire in favor of a greater cause the “Postponement of Gratification,” and it appears unique to Homo Sapiens.

To my mind the most obvious example of this principle at work and in failing would be credit versus investment. A dollar invested in savings today will earn its worth many times over the course of a lifetime, but a dollar in credit will cost the same. Credit provides the instant gratification and investment provides the future rewards. The amount of one or the other an individual has amassed at any moment in their lifetime is often used as one measure of Emotional Maturity, the measure of desire over self-control.

What does it say about our collective exhibition of this virtue that we Americans amass so much debt as a nation? What does it say that we as a world community take such a short-sighted view of such issues as environmental sustainability, population growth, and poverty?

It says that these issues are beyond the reach of our own lifetimes and are therefore beyond our ability to fully comprehend. The complexity of these issues, their gravity and their immensity are too great to impress them on our psyches. Our minds have yet to rise to these challenges that concern us all.

Empirical Observation

The simple explanation of this principle is allowing facts to override our preconceptions. Throughout history we have seen an almost chronic pathology of entire civilizations, organizations, and individuals disregarding facts inconvenient to their established modes of thought. Even when the civilization does not die due to its inability to acknowledge reality, the behavior proves severely detrimental to it, preventing the expansion of knowledge and progress.

Johannes Kepler is my favorite example of this virtue at work. According to the established logic of Kepler’s time, the planets had orbits along paths of perfect circles, because this was a universe created by a perfect god. Kepler spent years trying to chart the orbits of the planets within this paradigm, even using platonic solids, which held a divine character for their geometrical elegance, to create his model. The models did not fit the observations, and it was only through Kepler’s adherence to the virtue of empirical thought that he was able to develop his Laws of Planetary Motion, all of which were impossible without accepting the orbits of planets as ellipses.

Facts must trump all else, and anyone who adheres to this principle knows just how difficult it is to live it. Finding the facts in a world of persuasions is an immense challenge, but, like all virtues, we get more apt at it with practice.

Falsify Your Hypothesis

This is a subset of the empirical observation virtue. A common mistake Chess novices make is to emphasize, in their own minds, the positive aspects of their strategies rather than exploring the detractors. Grandmasters tend to think eight moves ahead, focusing on the potential detrimental effects of their strategies. They attempt to prove their logic false rather than seeking validation to reinforce it.

This trait makes for a strong Cognitive Schema, as it is demonstrated in the specialized realm of Chess competitor’s example. Yet the falsification of our hypothesis is a rare virtue in people. It requires a sophisticated level of emotional maturity, the ability to fairly anticipate opponent’s views, and the veracity to disassociate ourselves from our ideas. This is a great deal to ask of anyone.

The peer review process, so crucial to Scientific Knowledge, is an exercise in this virtue. If we are incapable of finding the flaws in our own thoughts, then others certainly will and even if they do not, then the process of being challenged strengthens the existing conceptions.

The stronger exhibition of this virtue is still in proving oneself wrong. Seeing the flaws in our own thoughts is preferable to making the next move on the chessboard and having our opponent demonstrate them for us.


“Curiosity killed the cat.” – an Antiquated Aphorism

Curiosity is another subset of empirical thought. We cannot exercise Empiricism without observations. Just as muscles consume protein, the mind requires a constant influx of new ideas and concepts to fuel it. Each new discovery increases the veracity of our cognitive schema as a whole.

Inquisitiveness takes many forms, such as introspection, academic research, geographical exploration, archeological, experimental, artistic… there are as many types of curiosity as there are dimensions of understanding. Curiosity is proactive. Curiosity involves a genuine concern for various elements of existence. Curiosity is the act of involving ourselves in reality.

For a species evolved to a point such as ours, where material gains, sexual reproduction, or mere survival are no longer universal goals, curiosity provides a motivation for living. It provides a purpose. We are now a race of factoid-gatherers, our minds growing into reality’s every crevice. From our final days in the womb, when our brains are sufficiently developed to receive sensory input, we become information sponges. Our entire existence is observation and experimentation. Curiosity, therefore, is an act of self-improvement. Each factoid we gather increases our capacity to deal with life.

Curiosity becomes an actual virtue when we consider how it contributes to civilization more than anything else. When two human beings meet, they inevitably exchange information, trade factoids, compare notes, exchange memes, what have you. We have a social responsibility to educate ourselves, not just to improve our own success in life, but to strengthen the integrity of civilization’s memepool. Curiosity is the only path to understanding.

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Great Films: “Army of Darkness”

Posted on 13th July 2005 by Ryan Somma in Mediaphilism

“Time you enjoy wasting, was not wasted.” – John Lennon

Not all movies are about making us think, some are about senseless fun. This Sam Raimi / Bruce Cambell pair-up is rife with comedic action and is my favorite way to blow an hour and a half of laughing my ass off.

Army of Darkness is the third film in the “Evil Dead” series of horror films. The first “Evil Dead” was a true horror film with a surreal tone that made it surprisingly effective considering its shoestring budget. The second film “Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn” took the concept of camp to a new level with a hilarious romp through many horror film clichés and gore so excessive that it could not be taken seriously. You don’t have to see either of these films to understand AoD, because everything that happened in them is summarized in AoD’s first five minutes.

Bruce Cambell, aka “Ash”, has been transported back into medieval times, to a place brimming with wide eyed offbeat villagers, a stuffed shirt king, and, of course, a fair maiden. Much of the fun comes from our protagonist’s modern-day attitude facing this cast. At one point in the film, he brandishes his shotgun and warns them it is his “boomstick.”

For a film with all the characteristics of a B-movie, Army of Darkness boasts one incredibly talented cast. Embeth Davidtz of Shindler’s List and The Emperor’s Club plays the heroine. Legendary composer Danny Elfman wrote the score for the film’s climax. Cinematographer Bill Pope went on to shoot the Matrix trilogy and the second Spider-man film. Even Bridget Fonda makes a cameo appearance as Ash’s girlfriend. Everyone involved has participated bigger and better things (relatively speaking where Bruce is concerned).

Sam Raimi is one incredibly under appreciated director. Even with two Spider-Man movies in his portfolio, most people still go “Huh?” when you mention this unassuming powerhouse of a filmmaker. Even in his B-movies we can see the conscious intention that went into each shot. His dynamic camera and action sequences will someday deserve the term “Raimiesque.”

Bruce Cambell is one fantastically underrated actor, and this film is a vehicle for his incredible talent. He delivers one-liner after memorable one-liner with total tongue-in-cheek machismo. His slapstick scenes put, in my opinion, Jim Carrey to shame. Watching his performance in this film makes me wish he could headline more major motion pictures (How about Evil Dead 4 after Spidey 3 Sam???).

All the classic horror-movie clichés are here. There is the “unseen evil” that chases the hero from behind the camera. One scene pays homage to “Jonathan Swift,” as miniature Ashes torment the protagonist. The film even uses stop-animation, unacceptable at such a late date in filmmaking, but adds a certain “cheese” factor to the action that heralds back to the work of special effects genius Ray Harryhausen.

While other films seek to maintain a suspension of disbelief. AoD embraces the implausibility, revels in its campy fun. Characters produce weapons like shotguns, boiling cauldrons, and horses from thin air at will. Unlimited ammunition, gas, and explosives abound. They demand abundance, cause what fun is working with reality when your dismembering armies of Evil Dead?

We watch the special effects with a knowing eye, seeing how the tricks work. A puppet explodes, the obvious super-impositions, a fake head attached to a shoulder, the split screen, dry ice, on and on. So many stage tricks honor all of the campy horror and adventure films that precede AoD.

This film is a tribute to all those fanboy entertainments, whether you get the inside jokes or not, it’s still wonderful, brainless fun.

See Also: Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Bride of Frankenstein, Evil Dead 2

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The Floccinaucinihilipilificators

Posted on 10th July 2005 by Ryan Somma in Enlightenment Warrior

Floccinaucinihilipilificators, or “Haters” for short, or “h8rs” for shorter, are people who engage in excessive floccinaucinihilipilification. If you’re not familiar with this word, it’s probably because you have a life, and I’ll get to explaining how to pronounce it farther down. For now just accept that string of 28 characters as what this random thought is about. : )

We’ve all met the type. You pop your favorite CD into the player and they immediately begin with the flood of criticisms about it. They’re the ones who wipe the smile off your face after enjoying a movie by explaining to you a million reasons why the film sucked and only an inbred mutant would enjoy such trite.

Not wanting to reveal that you are an inbred trite-enjoying mutant, you tone down your enthusiasm. You feel belittled, but chalk it up to the person’s insensitivity. In reality, they are secretly reveling in smug satisfaction at how they have belittled you.

There are many metaphors for this behavior. “Seeing the gray cloud inside every silver lining.” “Peeing on the parade.” “Taking a doodie in the sandbox.” Principa Discordia coined the term “grayfaces” for these individuals.

They are pompous, but they are more than that. They are cynical and and hypercritical as well. They are smug in their self-righteous ability to suck all enjoyment out of life. They are floccinaucinihilipilificators.

It’s not motivated by jealousy. Criticism motivated by envy suggests the critic desires to be like the person they are criticizing. Floccis are not jealous; they merely derive enjoyment from bringing down others.

These Nihilis are easy to recognize in gaming environments. They are the person who, when prevented from winning, seeks to ruin the other gamer’s enjoyment. They will go chaotic; begin “Hate Playing,” trying to become kingmaker, not just to ruin the fun for the losers, but to reduce the winner’s accomplishments as well.

On the web there are specific gatherings of Pilis. Running a search on google for “hater” will turn up hundreds of clubs and organizations of people united around their common dislike of celebrities, sports teams, politicians, and so on. The amount of personal time spent on these websites and organizational constructs is mind-boggling to the emotionally mature individual.

These groups should not be confused with groups whose dislike stems from ideological or value differences. Grayfaces lack sufficient substance to their dislikes to garner respect. They are almost wholly consumed with superficial justifications for their dislikes. The team, group, or celebrity simply “sucks,” and the Naucci believes that the mere virtue of their personal opinion means everyone should adopt that opinion, lest they suck too.

They cannot be defeated in disputation because of their circular reasoning. This is the impenetrable bubble of insulation that protects the Naucci from the outside world. It is also the most infuriating attribute of their character to the rest of us.

How should we deal with the floccinauccinihilipilificators who work so hard to ruin our personal happiness? The answer sounds easy in hypotheses, but not in practice. We must smile. We must laugh. We must shrug off the slings and arrows and wrap ourselves in a bubble of logic.

That logic is remembering the opinions of floccinauccinihilipilificators are worthless. They live in their own universe where they are king, and it’s all right to leave them there. Standing outside of their bland, spiteful world we know how small it is, and we are big enough to let them live in it.

Our personal happiness is far too precious. : )

Since we’re further down, the best way to tackle this excessively long and pretentious word is to break it down like so:

flocci – nauci – nihili – pili – fication

There are four latin words here, each directly meaning or equivalent to the word worthless:

A quick Latin lesson: flocci is derived from floccus, literally a tuft of wool and the source of English words like flocculate, but figuratively in Latin something trivial; pili is likewise the plural of pilus, a hair, which we have inherited in words like depilatory, but which in Latin could meant a whit, jot, trifle or generally something insignificant; nihili is from nihil, nothing, as in words like nihilism and annihilate; nauci just means worthless. (source)

One day I’ll get around to another pedantic essay about

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Great Books: “Body for Life”

Posted on 3rd July 2005 by Ryan Somma in Mediaphilism

When it comes to eating healthy and maintaining a state of physical fitness, the latest fad is never the best route to take. The long-term effects of today’s wonder-diet won’t be realized for another twenty to thirty years from now. Mindful of this fact, only the “tried and true” method, the established paradigm for physical fitness, is the best route to take.

In “Body for Life,” Bill Philips has assembled a collection of such knowledge into a comprehensive, yet incredibly simple routine for a healthy lifestyle. This book is filled with the basics of physical fitness that everyone should know about. Proper eating, muscle building, and aerobic exercise are the three imperatives in a comprehensive workout routine, and Phillips has powerful, effective insights into all three.

The simplicity of this approach is very important. Phillips recognizes that regimens requiring calorie or carb-counting are more likely to fail because of their time-consuming nature and complexity. He introduces a rule of portion sizes that equal the size of the individual’s fist. Because most people do not have the time each day for lengthy workout times, Phillips stresses shorter, more intense workouts. A simple and effective diet, combined with workouts that squeeze as much intensity into them as possible make this program feasible for many more people.

The “free day” is another important concept Phillips stresses and is widely supported by other fitness professionals. This is a day of no exercise and no concern for diet, also known as a “Reward Day.” It’s a very important mental concept, because a strict diet and exercise program can be an oppressive idea, and the free day alleviates the burden. It’s easier to eat broccoli on Friday if you know you can spend all day Saturday sucking down chocolate milkshakes.

Phillips has another effective gimmick to jumpstart his readers on the program and motivate them into giving it a serious try. This is his “Body For Life Challenge,” a 12-week physique transformation competition. Participants take before and after photos of themselves as a means of tracking their progress, a much simpler method than measuring muscles and body-fat. Additionally, competitors must write an essay communicating how becoming physically fit has changed their lives. Top winner get $1 Million dollars.

Even without winning, simply going through this process is a wonderful motivator. It is important to track progress when working out, lest we forget why we’re doing it. Seeing before and after photographs of ourselves is the starkest reminder of the most important reason for working out: looking good. Health and well-being are secondary.

Looking at the books cover, our impression of Bill Phillips is that of someone classically cool, a jock. Then he opens his mouth and we realize this man is a geek through and through. He approaches physical fitness intellectually and his rationales for the aspects of his program are simple, concise, and based on established research. Phillips has a jock’s body, but it is his nerdy mind that makes him so effective at maintaining it.

The best part about this book is that anything learned from it will benefit the reader. Even if we only adopt the weightlifting advice, or the aerobic exercise advice, or the diet schedule, or the allowed foods list we have taken a step toward improving our heath. The book can then sit on the shelf until we are ready to take another shot at it, another chance at improving our health further. Each of Phillips’ suggestions that integrate into our personal lifestyles brings us that much closer to overall physical fitness and well-being.

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